Sport as an Instrument of Russian Hybrid Influence

Putin and football

The recent scandal with UEFA banning part of the slogan on Ukrainian uniforms due to the pressure from Moscow caught the attention of many – not just football fans, but disinformation experts as well. Russia has a long history of using sport, which should be a field of fair game, for political purposes – but how and why? 

On June, 10 UEFA banned the slogan “Glory to the heroes” from the Ukrainian EURO-2020 team kit, for being “clearly political in nature, having historic and militaristic significance” and filled with “military connotations” despite the previous approval of the design. 

The design of Ukraine’s shirt was complemented with the map of Ukraine’s borders including the Crimean peninsula (annexed by Russia in 2014) and two slogans: “Glory to Ukraine!” and “Glory to the heroes!” — a greeting that has a long historic tradition and was actualized with the new meaning in 2013, consolidating the whole nation during the Revolution of Dignity.

The design provoked aggression in the Kremlin. Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova criticized the kits, saying the football team had “attached Ukraine’s territory to Russia’s Crimea”, allegedly creating a trompe l’œil, the “illusion of the impossible”. Later, Kremlin-based propagandists called the slogan a “Banderist spell” and a “totally inappropriate” gesture.

According to Andriy Pavelko, the president of the Football Federation of Ukraine, it was decided to place the slogan “Glory to the heroes” under another map of Ukraine as a compromise. 

Déjà vu?

However, this situation is a reminder of another sports scandal back in 2018 during the FIFA World Cup that was held in Russia. When Croatia defeated Russia in a football match, Croatian football player Domagaj Vida posted a video saying “Glory to Ukraine! Come on!”, dedicating the match to Dynamo FC where he used to play. With Russia pushing FIFA to punish the Croatian team and issuing a warning for not adhering to tournament rules about political neutrality issued by FIFA, there was no alternative for Vida than to apologize to the Russian people for his “mistake”. Russia’s main argument was based on the “sports beyond politics” principle. But is sport indeed apolitical when it comes to the Russian hybrid influence? 

Not just entertainment 

Since the popularization of “physical culture” and physical strength in Soviet times, the sport has remained a significant element of Russian national identity. According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, “physical culture and sport are not entertainment but literally a matter of national and political interest”. Glorifying both physical and political superiority, Russia turned its large-scale sports events and numerous sports victories into a feeling of national pride. The outer splendor of the Olympic games helps to support the vision of Russia as a victorious state — and so does the narrative of “great victory” in WWII, which is also actively exploited by the Kremlin. 

Since the Soviet times, magnificent spectacles have been an efficient way to articulate the idea of Russian greatness with both human rights violations and corruption scandals staying in the shadows. Thus, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi was positioned as the most expensive edition of the Games ever (with a budget of $51bn) although almost half of the money spent was lost due to the corruption in the construction industry and thousands of workers suffered exploitation and cheating. 

As a significant part of Russian ideology, sport is supposed to demonstrate the prestige of Russia on the world scene and boost its image, being a political instrument as well. 

To win against all odds: Russia’s doping violations

Legendary sports victories in Russia may sometimes turn into a cargo cult. Given this mindset, external aspects of the victory are by any means necessary and have more weight than the victory itself. The Machiavellian principle “the ends justify the means” is commonly used in Russia’s both domestic and foreign policy. Thus, according to the WADA anti-doping rule violations (ADRVs) report, Russian athletes were responsible for most anti-doping rule violations in 2018 (7,4% of total world ADRVs). The situation was the same in 2013 (11,5%), 2014 (9%), and 2015 (9,3%).

In 2016, Russian state hackers initiated a cyberattack against WADA, releasing the confidential athlete data into the public domain. As a result, in 2018 Russia was banned from the Winter Olympics due to the numerous manipulations of the anti-doping system. In 2019, the country was barred for four years from all major sporting events (the term was later halved). There is nothing bad in being “the fastest, the highest, or the strongest” and glorifying it until it comes to unfair means no matter where: from sport to politics. 

Legitimation of Russian occupation of Ukrainian territories 

While some 1.5 million Ukrainians from occupied Crimea and Donbas are now internally displaced persons, forced to leave their own homes, Russia is involving athletes from occupied Ukrainian territories to its championships to legitimize its military aggression. 

With the flag of the so-called “DPR” (“Donetsk People’s Republic”) demonstrated by one of the contestants during the Hand-to-Hand Fighting World Championship in Moscow (2015) and athletes from annexed Crimea and occupied Donetsk openly representing Russian Federation on the international championships, the Kremlin uses sports events as a way of normalizing its policy of military aggression on the occupied territories. This way, the Russian government aims for a slow but steady legitimization of its puppet republics in the east of Ukraine. And that is why a strong and consolidated response of the global community in this seemingly apolitical field is of high importance – maluse of sports events evidently bears more threats than one initially might think.

The Conclusion

The cult of sport is also closely related to the cult of the leader when it comes to authoritarian regimes. Thus, the Russian cult of strength and heroic masculinity is being complemented by Vladimir Putin’s image as an athletic man and sportsman practicing judo and ice hockey. This allows drawing the parallel with the self-proclaimed President of Belarus — Alexander Lukashenko who also exploits the image of both football enthusiast and ice hockey player. According to Lukashenko’s official website,

“If you ignore sport, you will never become a leader”.

As a significant part of Russian ideology, sport is supposed to demonstrate the prestige of Russia on the world scene. In the Russian hybrid war, sport is more engaged in politics than ever. The fact of Russia’s extreme reaction to the Ukrainian Euro provoked the Streisand effect [is a phenomenon in which the attempt to hide or censor something only brings more attention to it] turning the attention of the world community not only to the Ukrainian team but also to Russian military aggression and occupation of Ukrainian territories, demonstrating that sport is indeed political when it comes to Russian propaganda. 

Using lies and manipulations in both domestic and foreign policies, Russia does the same in sport, thereby turning the latter into an alternative platform for its political ambitions. Such provocative actions have two purposes: intimidation and demonstration of power, and it is a call for an appropriate and firm response by the international community.